John Edwards' not-so-Super Tuesday

In objective mathematical terms, Edwards can't hope to catch John Kerry. And that leaves political thinkers pondering the deeper questions.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 3, 2004 1:32AM (EST)

There's a John Edwards sign hanging from a lamppost outside a Starbucks here, and a few cars around town still sport "Dean for America" bumper stickers. But if you're looking for more vibrant signs of life in the race for the White House, the capital of the nation's most populous state is plainly the wrong place to be.

Sacramento is not alone. California, New York, Ohio and seven other states hold Democratic presidential primaries or caucuses Tuesday, but voters in a lot of those places are feeling that the race has already passed them by. And the fact is, they're almost certainly right. Barring a major, unexpected, catastrophic collapse by Sen. John Kerry -- and we're talking here about something of Lewinskian proportions -- the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is over before Super Tuesday begins.

Thus, while the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Gray Davis smackdown made California the epicenter of the political universe just five months ago, the state's Democratic primary seems more like an afterthought than an aftershock. With the outcome of the primary season increasingly beyond doubt, Democrats in California and elsewhere are wondering where John Edwards went wrong, what Howard Dean's supporters will do next, and whether there's anybody anywhere who really wants to vote for Ralph Nader.

And thoughts inevitably turn to the drama of the general election campaign, to questions of how Bush and Kerry will fare in states like California and Ohio, which are both crucial but for different reasons.

While Schwarzenegger suggested last month that Bush could carry California in November if the president gives the state enough financial help between now and then, most other political observers are skeptical. Democrats enjoy a 10-point edge in voter registration in California, and unless Kerry suffers a meltdown, that "structural advantage" should keep the state in the blue column in November, said the Field Poll's Mark DiCamillo. California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland says that he's relishing the day that Bush starts campaigning in California, a state where he says anti-Bush fervor burns hotter than anywhere else in the country.

A more important state to watch Tuesday will be Ohio. Bush won Ohio by 3.5 percentage points in 2000, but Democrats believe they'll be competitive there this time around, particularly if the economy does not improve dramatically. They'll be looking at turnout, exit polls and the winner's margin of victory for signs of Bush vulnerability.

As the day dawns on Super Tuesday, the networks will undoubtedly hype the 10-state contest as the pivotal test in the two-man race John Edwards always wanted. The numbers tell a different story. It takes 2,162 delegates to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Going into Super Tuesday, John Kerry has 754 of them. Edwards has 220. While a lead of 534 delegates might not seem insurmountable on a day when 1,151 delegates are up for grabs, the Democratic Party's delegate selection rules "are beginning to work against John Edwards," says Matt Streb, a political science professor at California's Loyola Marymount University.

The problem for Edwards: While most Republican primaries are "winner take all" affairs, the Democrats award their delegates proportionally. That means that the winner in a close Democratic primary receives only a handful more delegates than the loser. And for Edwards, that means that edging Kerry even in big, delegate-rich states like California and New York won't help him close the gap in any meaningful way.

"The arithmetic for Edwards is just punishing at this point," says a top Democratic strategist aligned with the Kerry camp. "Starting Tuesday, he's got to win 63 percent of the delegates, and that's not just the delegates in one state or two states or three states, but 63 percent of the delegates in all of the states."

If the latest polls are right, there's absolutely no chance of that happening. Kerry -- not Edwards -- may well run the table Tuesday, and if he doesn't he'll come close. Polls have Kerry leading Edwards 60-19 in California and 60-15 in New York. Kerry will cakewalk through Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Unless Howard Dean's supporters pull off a last-minute symbolic surprise, Kerry will win in Vermont, where Edwards isn't even on the ballot. And while there's apparently no polling in Minnesota, Kerry seems likely to hold on to leads in Maryland, Georgia and Ohio as well.

Edwards cut short an already brief trip to California last week to focus harder on Georgia and Ohio. But even if Edwards could somehow pull out a win in one of those states, his uphill road will have grown steeper with losses elsewhere. "If Edwards doesn't win 63 percent of the delegates Tuesday, he has to win something like 70 or 75 percent of the delegates in all of the states after that," the strategist said. "Short of John Kerry going on TV and drooling into a cup for 20 minutes, that's not going to happen."

Edwards himself seemed to acknowledge his dire straits Monday when he told reporters: "At some point, I've got to get more delegates, or I'm not going to be the nominee."

Although Edwards' press aides did not return phone calls from Salon on Monday, his staff was clearly working hard to put a brave face on the emerging reality. Edwards' advisors have previously talked longingly of March 9, when voters in the Southern or semi-Southern states of Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi will go to the polls. On Monday, the Edwards Web site offered up somewhat vague promises of campaign events next week in each of those states.

But simply showing up for more campaign stops in different states isn't going to be enough. It certainly hasn't been so far. Edwards surged to a strong finish in Iowa because he had the time to connect with the state's voters. He could give his compelling "Two Americas" stump speech in town after town after town and reach a substantial portion of the Democrats who ended up voting in the caucuses. Edwards didn't have to compare himself explicitly to his rivals in Iowa because voters could see the other candidates and make the comparisons themselves.

That's not the case in a state like California. Between lingering partisan bitterness over the Gray Davis recall, battles over ballot initiatives aimed at addressing California's budget crisis, and the uproar over gay marriages in San Francisco -- a subject Edwards has tried mightily to avoid in recent days -- the political environment in California is a crowded one right now. And Schwarzenegger's larger-than-life swagger has made it difficult for other politicians to grab the public's attention.

As Edwards started to campaign in California last week, Mulholland predicted great things from the senator from North Carolina -- eventually. "He's a youthful guy," Mulholland said. "He just has to do events here, and he'll pick up support wherever he goes."

The problem is, it's difficult for any candidate to be in 10 states at once, and Edwards didn't have the money for a barrage of broadcast ads. The senator from North Carolina remains a stranger to many Californians, as he surely does to Democrats in many other large states. Neither Edwards nor Kerry has purchased TV time in the state, and Edwards spent just two days here last week -- one trekking up the Central Valley, the next flying back to Los Angeles for a debate there. And along the way, he did little to distinguish himself from Kerry.

Edwards' late-night campaign stop in Sacramento was like almost any other appearance in his campaign. He took the stage to John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town," just as he always does; he threw his arms into the air to give a double thumbs-up, just as he always does; then he launched into his familiar "Two Americas" stump speech, just as he always does. The changes for the California crowd were minor: He spent a couple of sentences on the environment, and he mentioned Latinos.

What Edwards didn't mention was the competition. In his standard 20-minute stump speech, he never refers to John Kerry, not even implicitly. Thus, the voters who see him -- and on this night in a state of 35 million people, there were maybe 300 of them -- might leave liking John Edwards, but they don't walk away with much of a way to compare him, favorably or not, with John Kerry.

Kerry hasn't compared himself to Edwards at campaign stops, either, but that's not a front-runner's burden. At a rally in a Teamsters' hall in Oakland on Friday night, Kerry surrounded himself with a burly crowd of firefighters, iron workers and other union labor types who put the lie -- visually, at least -- to any charge of Democratic wimpiness. With hundreds of supporters inside the hall and another thousand gathered outside, Kerry pounded away at George W. Bush without any mention of his major remaining Democratic challenger.

Like Edwards, though, Kerry did mention one other challenger, albeit a former one: Howard Dean. Both Edwards and Kerry began their Northern California appearances with effusive praise for the former Vermont governor and the energy he brought to the Democratic race. For both candidates, it was plainly an effort to win over those who had backed Dean.

It's not clear whether the efforts worked, but it's also not clear whether it matters. Although Dean supporters initially talked of bolting from the Democratic Party in the wake of their candidate's "suspension" of campaigning, there's little sign of a revolt in California yet. And whichever way Dean voters go Tuesday in California, there probably aren't enough of them left to make up the difference between Edwards and Kerry.

While some California Dean supporters say they'll vote for their man Tuesday -- either as a sign of personal support or out of hope of securing a delegate or two for the Democratic National Convention -- they also seem clear in their plans to come together behind Kerry in November. "I certainly hope that's going to happen, and I expect it to happen," said Rick Jacobs, who chaired Dean's California campaign. "Gov. Dean has been adamant" about coming together to beat Bush, Jacobs said. "That's why we got into this in the first place."

Supporters who turned out to see Edwards and Kerry in Northern California last week voiced similar views. Time and again, they said that -- whoever they supported initially and however they might have felt about the candidates' issues on gay marriage or trade or the war on Iraq -- the only thing that matters ultimately is beating Bush in November.

Hollywood producer Rob Reiner, who campaigned hard for Dean around the country, made campaign contributions to both Kerry and Edwards last week, according to his political advisor, Chad Griffin. Griffin said Reiner will support whichever candidate wins the Democratic nomination.

And like a lot of former Dean supporters, Griffin -- whose opinion counts for much when it comes to Hollywood support in politics -- dismissed out of hand the suggestion that Dean backers unhappy with the Democratic Party might jump ship to the Nader campaign. "I don't know a single person who supports Ralph Nader," Griffin said. "I think many donors here who used to have respect for Ralph Nader hold him at least partially responsible for George Bush being president. I dont think there's a single person in Hollywood who would support Nader now."

Things aren't that bad for John Edwards, of course. While Edwards almost certainly won't win in California, he has built up goodwill for a future run at the White House or a vice presidential candidacy this year. And Edwards may do just well enough somewhere Tuesday -- most likely in Georgia, where he is scheduled to "celebrate" with supporters after the polls close -- that he can say once again that he has beat expectations and has the momentum to fight on. "Edwards has been able to claim some sort of moral victory in all of the primaries and caucuses," says Loyola Marymount's Streb. "He has consistently exceeded expectations, but at some point you've just got to win."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2004 Elections Arnold Schwarzenegger California George W. Bush John Edwards John F. Kerry